Fear Seizes Pr. William Immigrants -- Legal and Not

"If you're pulled over and you're a citizen or legal immigrant, you've got nothing to worry about," says county board Chairman Corey A. Stewart. (By Tracy A. Woodward -- The Washington Post)
By Nick Miroff
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 15, 2007

Some cowered indoors, wary of police sweeps. Others said they'd leave for another county, or state -- anywhere that didn't seem as unwelcome as Prince William suddenly did. One father gave his sons copies of their green cards to carry to summer classes in elementary school, worried they'd be stopped and questioned.

Although the anti-illegal-immigrant measures approved last week in Prince William County were less severe than proposed originally, Hispanic residents there say a clasp of fear has gripped their community in recent days, as anxiety and confusion over the policies ripple through supermarkets, job sites, hair salons and living rooms.

"Everyone is scared to go outside," said Jorge Villarta, a Salvadoran immigrant who spoke in Spanish as he waited for his wife at the Salon Hispano beauty shop in Woodbridge, dropping his voice to a whisper. "They think the police will grab them, and they'll be deported," said Villarta, who added that he is a legal resident but still fears arrest.

Elsewhere across the region and beyond, Hispanic immigrants kept close tabs on events in Prince William this week, wondering whether other jurisdictions would follow suit. "A lot of our students think this [resolution] is one of many that are going to pass in our local cities and counties," said Amy White, director of the English as a Second Language program at Catholic Charities' Hogar Hispano program in Falls Church. Legal residents are worried about racial profiling, she added.

To date, Herndon, Manassas and Culpeper are the only jurisdictions in the Washington region to enact or consider policies targeting illegal immigrants, and none is as extensive as what Prince William is attempting.

The resolution approved unanimously by the Prince William Board of County Supervisors on Tuesday orders police officers to verify the residency status of anyone in custody whom they suspect to be an illegal immigrant. The resolution also seeks to block access to public services and benefits for illegal immigrants, claiming they are causing "economic hardship and lawlessness" in the county. The measures -- the toughest in Virginia -- apply to all illegal immigrants, but in Prince William that means mostly Hispanics.

Support for the measures among the county's non-Hispanic residents appeared to be broad, and county supervisors said their offices have been flooded by calls and e-mails backing the resolution. "This country is founded on the basis of laws," said Tom Brown, at a Borders bookstore on the Prince William Parkway. "Illegal means illegal."

Others said they were torn. "I can see the benefit to county taxpayers. But these are very hardworking individuals," said Marilyn Koshetar of Woodbridge. "It's a no-win situation."

Police and other county agencies have yet to establish procedures for the stepped-up enforcement, but the practical impact was in plain view last week along Route 1 in Woodbridge, a usually busy commercial strip lined with Hispanic-owned businesses.

Markets and restaurants were nearly empty, with slow sales reported at almost a dozen shops and restaurants. "What's going on?" wondered one manager of a Popeye's who spoke on condition of anonymity. "Why is it so slow?"

A nearby KFC popular with Hispanics was nearly deserted at lunchtime. Meanwhile, business was booming at Pizza Hut, where the manager reported a spike in home delivery calls.

No one is sure how many illegal immigrants live in Prince William, Virginia's second-most-populous county, or what would happen if many of them left. Thousands of migrants from Latin America -- legal and illegal -- have arrived in the past decade to fill a voracious demand for jobs in construction and other services, drawn by the county's building boom and relatively low housing costs. Since 1996, the percentage of Hispanic students in the county's school system has soared from 6.6 to 24.2 percent.

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